During the time that I spent in Jerusalem, St. Catherine’s Monastery was a regular destination for the classes that I taught. We took a chartered bus to Sharm el Shekh, crossed through the border control, and on the other side met Bedouin who drove us across the trackless expanse to the southern tip of the Sinai Desert. There we visited the monastery; climbed Mount Sinai at three in the morning; and celebrated Eucharist on the way back down. The return trip to Jerusalem, like the one on our way down, was a long one and it required an overnight stop.
It will sound strange, but our favorite respite from the trip was a small motel called “Sallyland,” located on the Gulf of Aqaba. The owner was from Chicago and had named the establishment after his wife, Sally.
When we arrived the first time the owner apologized repeatedly for the absence of TVs and mini-bars in the rooms. We didn’t miss either one. Frankly, we were thankful for beds and clean sheets. But the apology struck me as odd. So I finally asked why, if he felt badly about it, the rooms didn’t have both.
“We did, at one time,” he explained, “but fundamentalist Muslims from Cairo would hide out here for days on end, drinking heavily and watching television with the volume turned all the way up. It disturbed our other guests and eventually drove them off. So we took both the bars and the TVs out of the rooms.”
It was one of many experiences over the years that have taught me these truths:
- There is no worldview or religion without its fundamentalists.
- There is no fundamentalism without hypocrisy.
- And every creed and conviction has its fundamentalists and hypocrites.
Fundamentalism is not the product of a single religion or worldview. It is one of two poles. A place where opinion and passion constellates around a distilled and oversimplified version of a creed — just as the same passion and opinion constellates around its rejection at the other end of the spectrum.
- Muslims at Sallyland —
- Christopher Hitchens, fundamentalist to atheists —
- Jerry Falwell, fundamentalist Christian —
Name a religion, life philosophy, or political point of view and you will find fundamentalists left and right. People are drawn to it or repelled by it. For some it constitutes the purest expression of a tradition, for others it represents the best reason for rejecting it.
The troubling truth is that those who connect with a faith in ways that are passionate, without being fundamentalist, are few and far between. Passion too often resides at the extremes. Far too many people who lived in the middle are simply disaffected. But it is that passionate balance that is needed.
Live from it.